Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Beckford, William

(1760-1844) English eccentric and art connoisseur, and author of Vathek (ot An Arabian Tale, from an Unpublished Manuscript: With Notes Critical and Explanatory trans Samuel Henley from author's original French 1786; reconstructed French text 1787 Switzerland; rev vt Vathek, Conte Arab 1787 France; final rev 1815 France; English edn vt Vathek 1816; vt The History of the Caliph Vathek 1868). Vathek is an Oriental Fantasy that utilizes the settings made popular by the Arabian Nights (see Arabian Fantasy) and infuses them with the atmosphere of Gothic Fantasy, then gaining in popularity. It tells of an 8th-century caliph who renounces Islam and partakes of vile and depraved practices in order to obtain supernatural Talents. After years of corruption, during which he constructs a mighty pleasure tower (see Edifice), he descends into Hell to inherit a kingdom, but is rewarded instead with eternal damnation. The book served to consolidate a reputation that WB was already earning through his sexual philandering and diabolic habits as a man of Evil. Like Matthew Lewis, whose The Monk (1796) achieved equal notoriety a decade later, WB became the subject of speculation and hostility – a position he seemed to encourage through his outlandish lifestyle. The richest commoner in England, WB financed the construction of Fonthill Abbey, then the tallest private structure in the UK, where he lived as something of a recluse among his phenomenal art collection for almost 20 years.

WB completed Vathek in French by early 1783 (taking a year to write it, not the three days he later claimed) and then arranged for Samuel Henley (1740-1815), his cousins' tutor, to translate it into English. WB delayed publication by writing some new "episodes" which take place in Hell; this delay caused Henley to bring his own translation into print in England, thus forcing WB to publish a reconstructed French text in Lausanne (the original had been lost), still minus the "episodes".

WB never completed the "episodes" to his own satisfaction, and they remained unpublished until found by Lewis Melville (real name Lewis S Benjamin; 1874-1932) in 1909. Two of them, "Histoire de la Princesse Zulkaïs et de Prince Kalilah" (unfinished; completed by Clark Ashton Smith as "The Third Episode of Vathek" Leaves 1937; in The Abominations of Yondo [coll 1960]) and "Histoire du Prince Alasi et de la Princesse Firouzka", were serialized in their original French in The English Review 1909-1910. They were then assembled with "The Story of Prince Barkiarokh" as The Episodes of Vathek (coll trans Sir Frank Marzials [1840-1912] 1912). These stories relate the degradation of other princes who misuse the black arts in order to achieve power and wealth, and lack the impact of the original Vathek – indeed they are only more of the same – and are too self-indulgent. The first edition to combine both texts was Vathek, with The Episodes of Vathek (coll 1929) ed Guy Chapman (1889-1972).

WB wasted a talent as a writer and artist. In his youth he was taught music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and became an acquaintance of Voltaire, on whose work he styled Vathek. WB was also a fluent linguist, but apart from one other novel, the satirical Azemia (1797) as Jacquetta Jenks, his remaining work published during his lifetime related to his European travels. He has been credited with the anonymous Popular Tales of the Germans (coll 1791), a translation of the stories of Johann Karl Musäus, but there is no evidence to support this assertion. [MA]

other works: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (coll 1783), a reflection on life.

further reading: The Life and Letters of William Beckford (1910) by Lewis Melville; The Life of William Beckford (1932) by John W Oliver; William Beckford (1937; rev 1952) by Guy Chapman; The Caliph of Fonthill (1956) by H A N Brockman; England's Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford (1962) by Boyd Alexander; William Beckford (1976) by James Lees-Milne; William Beckford (1977 US) by Robert J Gemmett; Beckford of Fonthill (1979) by Brian Fothergill.

The ascription of Vathek is incomplete. It was written in French, but first published in English as An Arabian Tale, from an Unpublished Manuscript: With Notes Critical and Explanatory (trans Samuel Henley from French ms 1786; rev by WB vt Vathek 1816; further rev by WB 1823; vt The History of the Caliph Vathek 1868; new trans Herbert B Grimsditch, exp with "Episodes of Vathek", as Vathek, with The Episodes of Vathek 1929 2 vols). The original French manuscript having been lost, a reconstruction appeared as Vathek (dated 1787 but 1786 Switzerland; new reconstruction ed Francois Verdeil, vt Vathek, Conte Arab 1787 France).

We have not yet determined whether or not the French edition of Vathek published in England in 1815 contains the three "Episodes of Vathek", one unfinished, which (it has also been claimed) were unpublished anywhere until the shorter two appeared 1909-1910 in The English Review, or in book form until all three's release as The Episodes of Vathek (written circa 1783-6; coll of linked stories trans Sir Frank T Marzials [1840-1912] 1912).

WB wrote not one additional novel but two (and possibly a third). The two novels definitely by him are Modern Writing, or The Elegant Enthusiast; and The Interesting Emotions of Arabella Bloomville: A Rhapsodical Romance (1796) as by Lady Harriet Marlow, and Azemia: A Description and Sentimental Novel (1797 2 vols) as by Agneta Mariana Jenks. The third, The Story of Al Raoui: A Tale from the Arabic (1799), anon, sounds more interesting than these two burlesques, but its authorship has yet to be confirmed. [JC]

William Beckford


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.